Rube Goldberg team brings home second national title with ‘Physics Pharm’ machine

PHOTO COURTESY OF NORA GATHJE The Rube Goldberg team from Chatfield stands behind the machine it created for this year’s challenge of putting a coin in a piggy bank. From left are Hunter Johnston, Rylee Burnett, Gage Tuohy, Carson Larrabee, Nathan Goldsmith, Sabina Boettcher, Ann Warren, Jack Tuohy and Katie Ihrke.
Gretchen Mensink Lovejoy

It begins with a bird, then it snags two chickens, one crow, four tractors, three mousetraps, a rat trap, a flannel farmer’s arm, a vegetable garden, a draining corn silo and a bovine alien abduction by cereal bowl UFO.

It takes all that just to feed the pig . . . or piggy bank in this case.

Welcome to Physics Pharm, the place and team where feeding the piggy bank spare change takes a grand total of 74 steps. And it’s on that farm that Nora Gathje’s Rube Goldberg team, comprised of nine Chatfield High School students, found their first-place national victory at the 2019 Rube Goldberg Machine Contest on April 6 in Lawrenceburg, Ind. Team members were Carson Larrabee, Jack Tuohy, Gage Tuohy, Nathan Goldsmith, Ann Warren, Katie Ihrke, Sabina Boettcher, Rylee Burnett and Hunter Johnston.

No sweat, though, because this farm followed up a Chatfield first-place national-prizewinning 2018 Rube Goldberg team that made a bowl of cereal in a dorm room-themed machine using approximately the same engineering pizzazz.

Jack Tuohy explained how the team arrived on the Pharm. “We decided on a farm because of the piggy bank,” he said. “We had some farm toys and knew people who had farm toys, so naturally, we thought of a farm. But we had a lot less time than usual.”

That is to say that they began rigging up the cornfield-surrounded red barn in October, but they battled snowstorm after snowstorm and days off school that the team normally would’ve had to gear up for the regional contest held in late winter.

Larrabee related that the Pharm evolved from an idea to a working enterprise step by step, pig by cow, crop duster by rooster, cornstalk by UFO. “Usually when we’d practice running it, people would just develop their own steps that we’d set up over time,” he added. “We kind of just went with whatever worked.”

The Pharm traveled – packed into a trailer – to the regional competition, where it garnered third out of fourth place with 51 steps, but the greatest competition might have been on home ground, knowing that there had been two previous national championship teams setting the fenceposts far afield for the 2019 team.

Recommendations were made by regional judges for the students to add steps to complicate the work of getting that piggy bank fed quarters, and that’s how the machine gained 23 more steps – so that it included sillier and more enchanting down-on-the-farm action.

Larrabee commented that the seniors had to squeeze in their class trip to Florida while still keeping their minds on the upcoming national competition. “We were gone on our senior trip for a lot of it, but between regional and nationals, there was a lot of work to do and not a lot of time,” he said. “A lot of stuff often didn’t work, and we had to rework it, figure it out, rework the steps and fix it, run it again, fix it and rework it again. It was a long process.”

Presenting their countryside contraption to national judges allotted them two chances to drop the ball that triggered the entire operation into motion, with the caveat that they couldn’t touch the works more than a specified number of times. Jack recounted waiting for the judges to announce the winners. “They announced third and second, but not first or fourth, so we didn’t know if we were first or fourth,” he said.

As a lucky penny would have it, first place was theirs, and Chatfield High School Rube Goldberg team advisor Nora Gathje was proud to see another machine get her brilliant students recognition and a $1,000 prize check to fund the 2020 machine.

The work’s not done when the little piggy goes to market. No, sir. It’s brainstorming time because she believes there’s no such thing as a creativity drought in scientific pursuits.

She stated, “At regionals, they required only 51 steps, and they ended up with 74. A lot of work went into getting ready . . . they added another 23 steps. You have to have the upper limit to compete at nationals. The competition is held in a big ballroom, and there were teams from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Ohio and Maryland. Some states had two teams there. It was a long day. We ran our machine . . . there were seven teams in our pod in the morning, and it took the top three out of nine teams to the finals. We didn’t have perfect runs in the morning. We were the ninth team announced, and it was just making it to the final rounds in the nationals, just to know that we are one of the top nine teams is impressive.”

She continued, “Something I like about the machine is that they had us recycling objects, because Rube is about reusing objects in a new and creative way. It forces the kids to be resourceful. The pig in the catapult used a dog water bowl, the piggy bank was an empty milk jug, the roof on the silo was a popcorn bowl, and the UFO was last year’s cereal bowl. It’s interesting to see how they’ll reuse parts for next year in different ways. There were a lot of failures along the way. The kids spend days making something, then they find out that it won’t work. I can’t fix that for them. The Rube Goldberg contest gives them problem-solving skills. A lot of teachers know the answers to a question, and they want their students to find the answer, but here, there is no right answer, truly. It’s ‘nobody ever created that before,’ so to come up with a unique product is an awesome life skill. This makes people be creative in science. Too often, people think that creativity does not belong in science, but it does. They find creative ways to solve questions.”

Gathje pointed out that as a team, Physics Pharm did well in contest, but also as friends working hard to grow a high-yielding crop.

“Along the way to Lawrenceburg, we stopped at a trampoline park, a comedy club, we visited the Indianapolis Zoo as a reward, because these kids spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on a project,” she said. “We try to have fun – the reward is the trip. They worked really hard to get it done. They’re all athletes, they’re all working after-school jobs, they did a lot of nights and weekends. One weekend, we put in 30 hours between Friday and Monday morning.”

Next year’s task is to turn out a light, and Gathje said the hardest part is the fact that the last three machines her students have created have lights on them that go on or off.

“The team already knows how to do that,” she concluded. “We’ve already wired our boxes, and making that more complicated is going to be hard.”